Somewhere in southern Illinois there’s a high school yearbook that contains a photo of me and another student leaning against a classroom wall on either side of a 1972 campaign poster of a smiling Richard Nixon.
The caption writer, another student, notes that my buddy and I are “standing” with our man, the then-incumbent president.
And I was, because nothing — not even the death of friend’s brother in Vietnam or a ballooning White House scandal called Watergate — had shaken my belief in Nixon.
In my defense, I was 17, and I had a lot of company. A few months later, Nixon carried 49 states and demolished his challenger, Sen. George McGovern, in a 520-to-17 Electoral College blowout. Less than two years later, however, Nixon was history, brought down by his own lies.
No one was more stung by the reversal than my father, a long-time Nixon loyalist. Dad stood by him until Aug. 8, 1974, the night the president told the nation he would resign at noon the next day.
I doubt Dad was angered by Nixon’s dirty tricks; after all, Nixon had earned the nickname “Tricky Dick” long before. Instead, I suspect it was Nixon’s endless lying. To Dad, there was no excuse to lie.
In the southern Illinois of my youth, petty political corruption came with the office. For example, most people overlooked a county employee mowing the local judge’s lawn or a police chief having a little “city” rock spread on his driveway. Each was a small, unspoken job benefit.
What people wouldn’t “cotton to,” however, was the beneficiary bragging about it. That was a career-killing indiscretion.
The maestro of this rule bending was the county sheriff who also owned what most knew was the best “Democratic” tavern in the area. In local parlance that meant he’d stand you the first drink if, as he often asked, “You vote right?” in local elections.
To no one’s surprise, he had a distinguished public career and no one ever thought him crooked.
He was, instead, more of a poster child for another political reality of those times; the power most local officials wielded wasn’t through their budgets or rich contributors. Instead, the real juice was patronage; they controlled lots of good-paying, local jobs.
If, say, you wanted a job as a county deputy, a key qualification was some personal or political (both would be best) connection to the sheriff. Likewise, if you wanted to work at the nearby state prison, you needed to know a county party boss or, better yet, the local state representative.
And, sure, this system was openly corrupt but it was open; everyone knew who got what favor and how. As such, it had built-in limits that few officials with an eye toward reelection ever broke.
That can’t be said of today’s millionaire candidates and billionaire backers who, due to their unlimited campaign resources, are largely unaccountable to voters and mostly unanswerable to party leaders.
Little wonder then that our biggest public problems — a rampaging pandemic, continued infrastructure failure, debilitating opioid addiction, the lack of adequate medical care, shortages of affordable housing… the list is as endless as obscene — are rarely tackled and never solved.
This year, agriculture is the perfect example of this political inversion. It’s impossible to explain why American farmers and ranchers will receive more than $50 billion in direct federal subsidies even as tens of millions of their customers struggle to pay housing costs, car loans and utility bills.
A year ago, I came across the grave of that badge-and-a-beer sheriff while visiting a bluff-top cemetery that overlooked the dairy farm of my youth. I smiled at the thought of his “Vote right?” question.
Everyone always said they did, and he always poured even when he knew they didn’t because, he once said, they might someday.
I miss that kind of honest dishonesty and the characters and competence it usually fostered.
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